TV-MA. This one is an HBO doc that gets pretty messed up, both visually and...um...content wise, I guess. It's messed up. That's a really good way to think about it going in.
DIRECTOR: Erin Lee Carr
My wife's true crime interests are very specific. I think I get what she likes. I'll buy her some true crime novel or nonfiction text and she looks at me like I'm a maniac. I recommend some documentary I hear is truly messed up and she looks at me like I betrayed her. It'll be quiet for a while and then she'll tell me about Mommy Dead and Dearest. (BTW, a little on the nose for a title of a documentary, right?) And, right as rain, this movie is messed up. It's a true crime documentary that just keeps getting weirder and weirder...until it doesn't. And it just repeats.
Like I review with most documentaries, I have to give a bit of a summary of the content. Since all summaries are somewhat SPOILERY, I am just giving this heads up. Gypsy Rose Blanchard murdered her mom. That's never really being disputed. She confessed to it a while ago and there's just oodles of evidence that supports that idea. This isn't exactly Making a Murderer. Gypsy Rose is weird. Just from the opening footage of her being interviewed by the police, you can tell that something is really off about her. She has this eerie childish voice that my wife keeps doing an impression of. (We're bad people.) But there's a whole backstory and the movie is really about why she killed her mom. Her mom is even more messed up than she is. When Gypsy was born, her mom kept claiming that she was really sick. For her entire life, Gypsy Rose would be in and out of hospitals and have these absurdly invasive procedures that made her somewhat of a local celebrity. I learned a fun term throughout this movie: Munchausen by Proxy. This is when someone develops a mental disorder because someone has convinced the person that he or she is sick. Gypsy Rose's story is about possibly one of the most intense examples of Munchausen by Proxy ever. Through sheer willpower, her mother convinced doctors to operate on her many, many times. The way I understand it, Munchausen by Proxy forces the sufferer to become dependent on another.
The story gets even more insane. That's what this movie is all about. It crams as much insanity into the film as it can. Any one of these moments, I wish there was more about. Her boyfriend, Nicholas Godejohn, deserves a documentary all to himself. Gypsy Rose is fascinating, but her story makes a weird amount of sense. Nicholas Godejohn has this really quick infodump and then nothing else. All of the information is completely riveting. But he doesn't make a lick of sense. He's just the right amount of crazy. Scratch that, he's off the chain crazy, but in the context of this movie, his story gets to be just another blip on the crazy train. That's possibly my biggest gripe with the movie. The movie does this amazing thing of constantly upping the ante when it comes to making each moment more jawdropping than then next, but it also can't keep up that progression. This movie should be about 45 minutes long. For 45 minutes straight, I kept looking over at my wife and screaming "No!" and "That didn't happen." Then the movie does something I wish it didn't do. It tried becoming a full length film and it got really repetitive. If the movie's mission statement was to give context for why Gypsy Rose killed her mother, aces. It knocked it out of the park. But then there's a lot of commentary on the whole thing. It is a really dark I Love the '80s. There's a post game where people meet Gypsy and talk about how it is or isn't her fault. There are interviews with her in prison that might be a fascinating special feature, but miss the point completely.
The other weak spot (okay, I lied saying that there was only one problem with this documentary!) is one of the choices of interviewees. It seemed like every time that there was some crucial exposition that needed to be given, the camera turned to an interview with a BuzzFeed reporter. I'm going to let that settle in: A. BuzzFeed. Reporter. I know, it seems like an oxymoron. But she has a lot of screentime. I don't know if she researched the living daylights out of this topic or she is part of the production team, but the amount of screen time she got was astounding. When searching for images, I had a really hard time finding a good picture that wasn't the publicity shot for the movie or wasn't lo-res. You know whose picture I found that was hi-res? Buzzfeed lady. It just seems super lazy, you know? I know the Amanda Knox documentary used the media to comment on this crime pretty often, but that's because the documentary was as much about the media as it was about Amanda Knox. Having a "reporter" from BuzzFeed give a bunch of information instead of just showing us the content was just a poor choice. I didn't even mind it from time to time. It was just that she was there so often. I know that other reporters had to have covered this case in depth. Why was she the representative from the world of journalism?
Sometimes a documentary just is meant to inform and grab attention. There was this weird miscarriage of justice that happened for Gypsy Rose, but I don't think that there is much alternative. Gypsy Rose really intended to murder her mother to stop her from torturing her. Gypsy Rose was undeniably tortured and the movie really went out of its way to prove that. She would probably still be tortured had Gypsy Lee not had her mother killed. It's just that I don't know what to do about something like that. I agree with both standpoints. She intentionally killed her mother and should go to prison. There were extenuating circumstances. Justice played the part it should have in this scenario. It's a super bummer and that's that. Perhaps some of the blame rests on the people around her. I don't want to play the blame game, but there were red flags all around her. There was a doctor who just didn't buy that Gypsy Rose had all of these conditions, so he delved into her medical history and caught the Munchausen by Proxy. I nearly stood up and gave the guy a standing ovation...until I realized that he did very little to draw attention to it. Yes, Mom was very smart in avoiding this doctor, but that's what someone who victimizes someone else does, they know how to avoid. I saw this moment and got really depressed. He saw what was going on and didn't get justice for this girl. I can't throw him on the heap because he's our lawful neutral. He did what he could legally and then threw his hands in the air when the result didn't pan out his way easily. I'm used to hearing that we need somebody to blame and I'm normally the kind of guy who thinks that is an oversimplification. But I do need someone to blame. I hate to think that might be me. I've chased down justice only to be stymied and it is a frustrating position to be in. I took it as far as it would go and I got no help, so the crime was left unresolved. But I feel like this doctor didn't go that far. He knew that Mom was a liar and that this was going to continue. I felt like there were other avenues to continue down and he just didn't pursue it. I know, I know. He's got oodles of patients and there has to be a line in the sand for doctors and how much they can invade a patient's life. After all, I'm sure that patients all over the world admit to constant health-crimes and a doctor is left to simply accept that. But Gypsy Rose was a kid who was powerless and unawares. Gypsy was the patient and Mom was trying to take power away from this patient. I get frustrated, guys. I'm sorry.
The mental condition of Gypsy Rose is also something that is intriguing. In many ways, Gypsy is a hostage in her own house. I can't help but make comparisons to Room and what long term imprisonment does to the human mind. Because I established that I'm a bad person, I will continue to make references to Gypsy Rose my entire life. There's just some insane stuff in this documentary. I kind of liken it to my reaction to Grey Gardens, only add a troubling backstory and a grizzly murder. (I may have realized at this precise moment that I'm genuinely a bad person, but I'm going to bury that revelation here on this quiet little plot of internet.) Gypsy Rose's mother was a complete lunatic. Looking back at her childhood, her mother did some absolutely terrible things. Imagine being raised in a household where your moral center was a completely nutbar. (Again, the title of this movie is a bit too on the nose.) Gypsy Rose, for the bulk of her life, found her only friendship in her mother. Even if Gypsy Rose's mother was a pillar of sanity and saintliness, that has to take a toll on her. Her bizarre behavior is such a reflection of her environment. I always go back and forth on whether people are primarily nature based or nurture based, and this movie is my Exhibit A for nurture based. Gypsy really comes across as autistic or developmentally disabled simply because she can't really talk like a normal person. There was abuse in the movie. It was proved and witnesses can attest to this abuse. But Gypsy had no frame of reference for what normality looked like. She lives like a poorly written kids' show character. Her voice is in this octave that sounds like the worst performer's choice ever. When she is alone, her voice still has this surreal chipmunk quality, but there is just the hint of a natural cadence somewhere in there. I don't think she actively puts on the Gypsy voice for people, but it is definitely another persona.
Watch this documentary, but be aware that it is not meant to be a full movie. If you watch it for no other reason, watch it knowing that I'm going to be making references to Gypsy Rose for a long time.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.